First year head coach Paul Chryst has a great welcome gift as he makes his debut against No. 3 Alabama in Arlington, Texas. But if you are going to face Alabama, which made the inaugural College Football Playoff last season, it is probably best to do it when they are losing their starting quarterback, running back and top three wide receivers.
That’s the silver lining. Fact of the matter is the Crimson Tide return seven starters on defense, are 58-9 the last five years, have won national titles (2011 and ‘12) and two conference titles (‘12 and ‘14), and consistently reload with some of the top high school talent in the country. It’s an expectation each year in Tuscaloosa the head coach Nick Saban reload and put his team in position to win a national title. Needless to say, this will be no easy task.
The rankings for the Front Seven are determined based on performance from fall camp, expectations this coming week and need. It was not easy determining who will be important in helping the No. 20 Badgers to an opening season win over Alabama, the second all-time meeting between the two programs.
1, Joel Stave QB: Stave was able to put together a solid fall camp as the clear cut number one quarterback, but he will get a good idea of where he has progressed this offseason when he faces a defense that ranked 12th last year in the NCAA in total defense (328.4 yards). In order for the Wisconsin running game to have success, Alabama, like many other teams before, will force Stave to beat them with his arm. If Stave can show he can be effective in the passing game, it will prevent Alabama from consistently stacking the box with its talented front seven, as the defense recorded 32 sacks and 97 tackles for loss last season. With there being questions surrounding Wisconsin's offensive line, Stave may not have the luxury of time on his drop backs. It will be important for Stave to show patience in the pocket, something he has done well in his career. If he can do that it should give his wide receivers and tight ends a chance.
If Wisconsin’s line struggles to protect Stave, the Badgers may need to utilize short dump off passes to either his running backs or tight ends. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the offense start the game with some short intermediate throws in order to get the unit into a rhythm. When Stave does get the green light to throw the football deep, he needs to take advantage against a defense that gave up 226 yards (58th in the NCAA) through the air last season.
The one thing Stave can’t do is commit turnovers. Throwing at least three interceptions in three games last season, Stave is going against a defense that returns three of four starters. Keeping the offense on the field for sustained drives that come away with points is a must.
2, Corey Clement RB: If Stave can keep the Alabama defense honest, Clement will have a chance to have an effective game against a run defense that gave up 102.4 yards a year ago, which ranked fourth in the NCAA. Averaging seven yards per carry in his first two years at Wisconsin, Clement will likely have to grind against a front seven that returns five starters, gave up 3.1 yards per carry and only allowed five rushing touchdowns. Clement’s physical running style will have a chance to help wear down the Crimson Tide defense and possibly help him bust a run to the outside as the game progresses.
It also wouldn’t be surprising to see Clement get involved in the passing game off of a screen pass or in the flat. Clement has 15 career catches (14 of which came last year) and should see that number grow going forward. With Clement’s big-play ability, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Chryst try to get him the ball early to set the tone. Finding a rhythm won’t be easy against a defense that gave up only 18.4 points per game a season ago.
3, Vince Biegel OLB: Starting safety Michael Caputo is the unquestioned leader of the defense, but Biegel is the unquestioned vocal leader of the unit. His energy will be needed for a Wisconsin defense determined to improve on its pressure numbers from a season ago. Biegel led Wisconsin with 16.5 tackles for loss and had 7.5 sacks in 2014, productivity that will be counted on to flustered Alabama’s starting quarterback. Although Alabama’s offensive line is athletic, they have to replace three starters from last season. Biegel’s array of pass rushing moves could allow him to be in the Tide’s backfield often. Simply put, if Wisconsin can get off the field and prevent Alabama from long drives, it should help keep the defense fresh and allow more chances for the Badger offense to score.
4, Michael Caputo, S: Biegel may make the big plays in the backfield to put Wisconsin in favorable situations, but Caputo will be relied on to make sure the defense doesn't break and allow any big plays. Caputo will be asked to do a little bit of everything for Wisconsin's defense all season, from playing near the line and stopping the run, having his number called on blitzes and guarding the middle of the field. It will be interesting to see how Alabama decides to attack Wisconsin. Much like Wisconsin, Alabama replaces a junior who declared for the NFL draft (T.J. Yeldon) with a talented backup in Derrick Henry, who rushed for 990 yards a season ago. If Wisconsin can make Alabama one dimensional, defensive coordinator Dave Aranda will be able to use Caputo in a variety of ways to benefit his defense.
5, Tyler Marz LT: Although there are questions surrounding Wisconsin's offensive line, Marz is one of the few exceptions. A fifth-year senior and now three-year starter, Marz will be key in keeping Stave upright and giving him time to throw and opening up lanes for the run game. Marz will have an intriguing matchup against Jonathan Allen, who had a productive sophomore season with 11.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks and seven quarterback hurries. If Marz can consistently win in the trenches against Allen it should allow the Wisconsin offense time to have a positive play whether that be on the ground or through the air.
With three first-time starters on the line, including left guard Michael Deiter, Marz will be counted on to help with communication, calls and reads. Hopefully with a full practice time, there will be enough time for the starters to get in sync and for a young unit to prepare for a tall task.
6, Conor Sheehy NG: In order for the linebackers to do their job, Sheehy will be counted on to take on double teams to create the lanes into the backfield. Sheehy will have a stiff test against a starting offensive line that averages out to about 6-5 and 311 pounds. But Sheehy had a productive fall camp and showed enough skills to allow redshirt junior Arthur Goldberg to slide over to defensive end full time. Sheehy played in every game last season and has the right body type to take on Alabama’s offensive line. The depth by Sheehy (Jeremy Patterson, Olive Sagapolu) is unproven, so his performance will be critical in helping the Badgers neutralize Alabama’s offense. If Sheehy can win his matchup at times if that is either against fifth-year senior center Ryan Kelly or one of Alabama’s starting guards, he’ll give himself and the UW linebackers a chance to make a play.
7, Alex Erickson, WR: The chemistry between Stave and Erickson has been a good for two years and it will need to stay that way in order to open up the offense. If Wisconsin is going to go with the short intermediate throws, they will likely go to Erickson on a slant route or a bubble pass. If either of those plays work, he will need redshirt senior Jordan Fredrick, or any other blocker in front of him, to try and pick up a first down. Erickson will also need the help from Tanner McEvoy to take some pressure off of him. If McEvoy can show he can be effective in the passing game, Erickson might find himself in single coverage opportunities he can exploit.
Also listed as the starting punt returner, Erickson will have a challenge against sophomore J.K. Scott. In addition to averaging a nation’s best 48 yards per punt, Scott placed 26 of his 55 punts inside the 20. With that kind of consistency, Erickson will have to take advantage of any possible return to limit the offense from starting deep in their own territory.
Others to Note
T.J. Edwards, MLB: Making his first career start, Edwards will need to be a sure tackler and limit plays up the middle. If Edwards can create havoc in the middle it should continue to help prevent the Alabama offense from gaining any sort of comfort.
Troy Fumagalli, TE: Fumagalli only caught 14 passes a season ago but always seemed to pop up in critical situations. Emerging as a top young tight end and a natural for Chryst’s offense, Fumagalli has demonstrated the ability to consistently catch the football and be more than a serviceable option in the offense. He isn’t a deep threat, but Fumagalli will be useful on third downs and in the red zone when Wisconsin needs someone to step up and make a play.
Rafael Gaglianone, K: With Alabama having a talented defense, Wisconsin will have to take the points whenever they can. Gaglianone showed throughout his true freshman season that he can be relied on in the kicking game with his big leg and accuracy. Having that kind of option it will help Wisconsin make up for a stalled drives. Regardless of where the field goal comes from, Gaglianone will need to convert to help keep Wisconsin in the game.
Leo Musso S: One of the surprises of fall camp for his ability to generate interceptions, it will be interesting to see if Musso can carry that over into the season, especially this week. Musso, whose only career interception came as a redshirt freshman, could have a chance for opportunities going against an inexperienced quarterback. Musso might not be the tallest player, but he is a smart player who has worked hard in practice to get to the position that he’s in today.